Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
2016, R, 93 min. Directed by Thorsten Schütte.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 15, 2016
Trying to communicate the essence of musician Frank Zappa and his body of work in words is futile, even when the words are his own. The best way to describe this iconoclastic artist and his eclectic output is to say they defy description. With that handicap, the worshipful documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words takes a deep dive into the archives to unearth a wealth of rarely seen footage featuring this American original in talk-show interviews, stage performances, and other venues in which he converses about his career, creative process, social philosophy and politics, and (oh-so-briefly) family life without revealing too much. You get the impression that talking about himself and his music made Zappa slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious, even embarrassed, though on a couple of occasions during the film (particularly when he knew he was dying of prostate cancer) that bushy eyebrow uncocks and he demystifies the enigma, if only just a little. They are rare moments of clarity in a movie without talking heads except for the one attached to its subject matter. Still, the spectrum of film clips assembled by German director Thorsten Schütte here is impressive. Perhaps the most telling one is the silliest and yet most intriguing because it demonstrates Zappa’s outré sensibility at an early age. Conforming to the era’s dress code by sporting a suit and skinny tie, a clean-shaven(!) 22-year-old Zappa plays the bicycle as a string and percussion instrument on an episode of The Steve Allen Show aired in 1963. The television host and audience appear dumbfounded by this odd young man. One thing, however, was abundantly clear: This is a guy who marched to the beat of his own drum, even one that’s got two spoked wheels and some handlebars.
Anyone who’s unfamiliar with Zappa’s artistic legacy (presumably most persons under the age of 40 or so) will likely wonder what all the fuss is about. The film’s musical sequences are rough and chaotic, with little emphasis on the strange and outrageous songs that others remember him for, with the exception of a cockeyed rendition of the sexually charged 1979 European hit, “Bobby Brown.” For many post-baby boomers, he’s probably best remembered as the seemingly humorless man who engaged in First Amendment combat with Tipper Gore over the Parents Music Resource Center’s recommendation to label albums with explicit lyrical content. (He lost that battle, but as this film demonstrates, he put up quite a fight.) But for those who perceive genius in his audacious and uncompromising creativity, Eat That Question may simply reinforce their belief that Zappa (who died in 1993) was a serious artist who deserves a place in posterity. In their eyes, he is a kindred spirit of Igor Stravinsky, a genre-bending musical sophisticate, a social subversive who lobbed lyrics like Molotov cocktails, a brilliant avant-gardist whose heart belonged to Dada. If he is all those things – and he may be – you wouldn’t know it from this film.